Wes Anderson movies are like pizza. Even when it’s not great, it still tastes pretty good. Plus, nobody drapes a pizza with more unique toppings than Anderson. He breaks out a few new toppings for Asteroid City, as well as several old favorites. Although somewhat experimental for Anderson, the film might not provide the breath of fresh air that audiences experienced when they saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or my personal favorite, Moonrise Kingdom. Asteroid City is a step up from his previous effort, The French Dispatch, although both fall short due to a lack of focus.
The film is presented as a TV production based on a play written by Edward Norton’s Conrad Earp. Anderson assembles several other regulars, including Tilda Swinton as a scientist, Adrien Brody as a director, and Bryan Cranston as the slickest host since Rod Serling. Jason Schwartzman is also naturally present, although this marks his most significant role in an Anderson picture since Rushmore. Schwartzman plays Augie Steenbeck. Well, technically Schwartzman plays an actor playing Augie, a war photographer who lost his wife. In true Wes Anderson fashion, Augie matter-of-factly breaks the bad news to his kids at the Junior Stargazer convention.
While Anderson’s usual suspects all slip comfortably into their roles, Asteroid City marks his first collaboration with several others who feel right at home. Standouts include Tom Hanks as Augie’s dry father-in-law, Maya Hawke as a virtuous teacher drawn to a singing cowboy, and Steve Carell as the motel manager who rounds up these colorful characters. After voicing a character in Isle of Dogs, it was only a matter of time until Scarlett Johansson reteamed with Anderson. She’s marvelously cast as an actress playing an actress who has a flirtation with Augie.
All of these people have gathered to see the historic meteorite fragment that gave Asteroid City its name. The convention is interrupted, however, by a stop-motion alien, who awkwardly snatches the meteorite without explanation. This is probably the most out-there thing ever to happen in an Anderson picture, which is saying a lot given his offbeat nature. Yet, the film plays in typical Anderson fashion with a large ensemble acting quirky for the sake of acting quirky. This does lead to some humorous and occasionally thought-provoking exchanges. However, the story manages to be loose while being complex with uneven results.
Visually, Asteroid City is among Anderson’s most dazzling films with an artificial outdoor set that feels strangely authentic. The ensemble might be overstuffed, but every actor makes the most of the material. There’s no such thing as a small role in an Anderson picture. It’s hard not to admire Asteroid City for its ambition, even if the ingredients don’t always mesh. Having let the film sit for a few weeks, I’m still not sure what Anderson is trying to say here. Maybe that’s a testament to its strength or maybe it’s simply unfocused. It may not win over Anderson’s critics, but his fans will find plenty to love. I respected Asteroid City more than anything else. Even with its narrative shortcomings, though, you have to give Anderson credit for always reaching for the stars.